The Good Chairperson's Guide

Before the conference

Work with the organisers in suggesting speakers and helping devise the programme. They will have done their research, but speakers are more likely to come if they know you are chairing and the conference will go well because you will be among friends and so will be able to develop a rapport with the speakers, and thus with the audience.


The assumption is that each panellist will be given a couple of minutes to make their particular point, followed by questions and discussion. Do make contact with them all and, if at all possible, organise a meeting or conference call beforehand.

The outcome should be to prevent duplication of material and also to elicit and agree good leading questions which will encourage debate and discussion. At the very least, they will have the chance to get to know you and the other panellists and so be looking forward to the event. It also helps to seal their commitment. Panellists are the most likely to cry off at the last minute.

Presentations. Organisers always ask for slides well ahead and sometimes succeed. Press them and ask to be sent copies. It's so much better on the day if you can introduce speakers with knowledge of what they're going to cover and maybe make links with other speakers. It also gives you a chance to see if there's any duplication and to warn the speakers on the day.

At the conference


Get there in good time:

  • to meet the organisers
  • to meet the technical guy
  • to have a dry run of mikes, acoustics etc
  • to organise your own water, place etc
  • to meet the speakers
  • to check the delegate list and get a feel for their firms and status
  • to pick up the conference pack and check through any slides you haven't been sent
  • to talk to delegates: discover why they're there; what issues concern them; war stories.
  • Opening remarks

    Rather than be tied to your desk on the stage, why not go down amongst them for this bit. It helps to make the event less formal.
    The inevitable housekeeping. Pause for the mobile phone switch off. Start the drive for the evaluation forms now.
    A chance to explain why you are there as Chairperson. If you obviously know what the conference is about, the audience will have confidence in it and you. Perhaps a chance to summarise very briefly what's to come.
    Be lively and enthusiastic. It's going to be a long day!

    Timing - the top priority

    In the end, this is what you will be evaluated on, especially your ability to hold breaks (and finish) when billed. Sad as it may be, delegates often plan their day and phone calls back at the office around these times. Missing them can cause a lot of unnecessary frustration.

    If there isn't a light on the podium, devise and explain to speakers a 5 minute warning signal. If they try to ignore you, tell them out loud.


    Obviously the delegates get first call for questions. After that, the first question is down to you. You must have at least one question ready; preferably two, because the speaker may well cover your excellent opening question during their presentation. Keep involving the delegates - for questions or personal experiences. Even if you're right up against time, I would still squeeze in one question. It's surprising what emerges and can liven an otherwise dull session.

    Listen to the speakers

    Not as patronising as it sounds.
    If you are obviously listening to the speakers, so will the audience. In any case, many speakers regularly turn to the Chairperson during their presentation, as much for moral support as anything. Engage with them; smile.
    And, of course, listen for possible questions. It's another truism, but you are the one who has the chance to seek clarification of a point which delegates will be too embarrassed to ask. Even in the middle of a presentation, if you think it's necessary.


    If they haven't already spoken, it's good to give panellists the chance to say a couple of words to get across their particular point and show who they are to the delegates.
    In an ideal world, the audience will have loads of questions or observations of their own to add to the discussion and it will be really interactive.
    Practice teaches you that you should plan on the assumption that there will be little contribution from the floor; any you get will be a welcome bonus. Appeal to the audience, encourage them, cajole them, but lightly. Assume that you and the panel are on your own for the whole of the session to make it interesting and informative and a welcome break from the solo speaker. The atmosphere I try to convey is one of a conversation between informed experts, which (without being patronising) the audience are privileged to be hearing.

    Evaluation forms

    These really are useful. Do remind delegates at each break. The more they are encouraged to fill them in during the day, the more likely they are to fill them in at all. And no doubt the organisers will have provided a carrot (or bottle) to encourage them.


    If there are sponsors, make sure you meet them and also see if you can give them a mention. If at no other time, at the end.

    Ending the conference

    Thank everybody for coming and anybody else you should (ie sponsors).
    Summarise the day in such a way that delegates can be reminded of what and who they have heard and also be given the impression that the conference forms part of something coherent. It all adds to their feeling that the event was worthwhile and that they will come back for more from the same conference organisers.

    After the event - evaluating the conference

    Do your own evaluation.

    Read and digest the summary of evaluations which you should be sent and discuss it with the organisers. There will be lessons for each, especially regarding future conferences.

    © John Thirlwell 2004-06. All rights reserved.
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